Why has fitness become so unaffordable?

By: Lisa Coxon on November 14, 2018

Sometime last summer, in the throes of unemployment, I decided it would be a great time to get fit. For what felt like forever, I’d been wanting to try pilates reformer classes. So, I found the nearest studio, purchased a 10-class pass, and flung myself around on their machines for a few weeks. That cost me $270. Astronomically expensive? Yes. Wildly unaffordable for a freshly laid off writer trying to survive as a freelancer? Also yes. The worst part was: I ended up loving it.

Intrigued, I perused the studio’s membership options. If I wanted a yearly membership, where I could reform indefinitely, I would have to fork over $275 a month. If I wanted a one-month unlimited pass, I’d be out $300. Okay, I told myself. Remain calm. What about a 50-class pass? Well, that reduced the monthly price to $210, but it had to be paid over the course of six months. That meant — at best — I could take only one class a week. Any more than that and I’d still be paying for my classes long after I was done actually attending them.

Besides the fact that this once-a-week model wouldn’t do much for my physique, I wasn’t planning on supplementing these classes with anything else. (Who among us can afford two fitness memberships?!) No matter which way I crunched the numbers, every option at this studio was out of reach. I went to my 10 classes, and I never went back.

Almost every time I’ve failed to return to a regular fitness routine, it’s because of the cost. There is a plethora of fitness studios in this city, making for a healthy amount of competition that should be driving membership prices down. Instead, it seems, boutique fitness studios are in a pricing deadlock.

I endeavoured to find out why.

Graham Longwell, editor-in-chief of Fitness Business Canada magazine, points out that for starters, Toronto studio space is both small and expensive. If there’s room for, say, only 10 reformer machines, which was the case at the studio I briefly attended, owners need to make up for that with higher membership costs. “Often, these studios are drawing on only a five to 10-kilometre radius,” Longwell says, referring to  a studio’s customer base. “Less predictable income means they have to charge more.”

Boutique studios also provide something that the average gym doesn’t: specialized training by highly qualified teachers. “Gyms don’t provide a high level of service,” says Longwell, “and are generally only a good fit for the independently driven.” Group classes foster a sense of community. Plus, when you have a teacher, you don’t have to be your own. The gym requires you to design your own workout. Classes just require you to show up and do what you’re told. “Small group training is the main attraction,” says Longwell. “And it gets results.”

Pay for pilates or pay your bills

That’s why, for a long while, I was happy to spend money on a form of exercise I actually enjoy: pilates classes.

Off and on since 2014, I’ve signed up for mat pilates classes at Modo Yoga, which has several locations across the city. Modo offers pilates five days a week and an unlimited annual membership costs $115 a month. Much more reasonable than reformer pilates, but still, not cheap. Usually, I'll sign on for a couple months at a time, when there’s a three-month summer sale, for instance. Eventually, my attendance dwindles, and when I'm no longer able to justify spending more than $100/month on fitness, or when I get tired of using my own body weight to get results, I give up and either go back to the gym, or ponder trying something else.

During one of my Modo off-seasons last year, I became curious about an emerging form of pilates that I’d been seeing more and more of on none other than Instagram: pilates reformer machines.

I tracked down a reformer pilates studio within walking distance from my apartment: Body Harmonics, where I did my 10 classes at. The lowest you’ll pay here for reformer classes is $105/month (paid over six months) for 25 classes over one year. The highest you’ll pay is $210/month (paid over 12 months) for 100 classes over one year. The unlimited membership (which also gets you access to mat classes) costs $275/month.

Here, each class was fresh and different from the next. The teachers were attentive, engaged, and always changing up their exercises. I squeezed what I could out of the experience, knowing in the back of mind that I couldn’t afford to continue. As my 10 classes came to an end, I tried to find a membership option that worked, but they were all out of my price range. Then, I did some math. A run-of-the-mill reformer machine costs anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000. That’s when it hit me: it would have been cheaper for me to buy a machine myself than to have bought an annual unlimited membership. I think that was my breaking point.

Pilates is just one in a long line of fitness trends I’ve been tempted by, only to get scared away from because of high costs. Remember when barre first burst onto the scene a few years ago? As a once-upon-a-time dancer, I found the ballet-infused approach to this form of exercise enticing. I had a sneaking suspicion it would be right up my alley, but I couldn’t bring myself to sign up because of the pricetag. A one-month unlimited membership at Barreworks, which has two locations in the city, costs $225. If you sign on for an annual membership, you’re looking at $180 per month. I mean, I get it. Barreworks serves the trendy neighbourhoods of Queen West and Uptown, but for some perspective, its annual membership option is only $4 shy of what I pay monthly in auto insurance premiums. To own a car or to own at barre: is this really the choice that I’m left with?

Then there was my very short-lived fantasy as a lagree enthusiast. I first heard about lagree from a lawyer acquaintance who swore by its effectiveness. I’m still a little unclear on what lagree even is, but it’s said to combine resistance training and cardio, and is done on a machine similar to the pilates reformer — only the lagree machines have several different names that sound like McDonald’s supersized versions of the original. There’s the proformer, the megaformer, and the supraformer.

I was intrigued for a hot minute, until I looked at the price. At Studio Lagree’s Forest Hill and King Street locations, 20 classes will cost you $440, or $22 per class. The Vaughan studio is somewhat cheaper, coming in at $340 for 20 classes, or $17/class. Still, those aren’t unlimited memberships, which means you’d be spending between $136 and $176 per month to only be able to go to a class twice a week. More importantly, though, is how I’d so easily overlooked the fact that this recommendation came from a lawyer — someone who earns at least three times the salary I do.

Back to the budget option 

So, I ended up back at the gym, where monthly memberships run the gamut. Fancier clubs like Equinox charge anywhere from $181 to $315 per month. There’s Goodlife, which charges anywhere from $27.99 (plus an enrolment fee) per month to $34.99. And then, of course, there’s Planet Fitness (bless its cheap and harshly-lit soul), which may forever reign as the most affordable gym in the world. In September, it cost 25 cents to sign up, and just $10 a month to be a member. There’s an annual fee of around $40 every October that you’re still with the gym.

I know this because I tried that life for a while, and it’s where I’ve returned to. Those aisles of purple machinery make it feel like you’re inside a gigantic fitness factory. Rarely is the place not packed. Often, my gym buddy and I used to work out in the hallway at the back of the gym that led to the emergency exit door.

Exercising doesn’t have to be bougie, but it also doesn’t have to involve hearing the piercing sound of a “lunk alarm” whenever some bro decides to drop his weights in a show of machismo. The thing is, a lot of us want an alternative to the do-it-yourself method, one that feels tailored, personal, and communal. Even better if you can feel like you’re part of an elite club, with access to highly qualified staff. Maybe that’s how we justify paying so much for fitness. And maybe fitness studios are onto this collective weak spot. Coupled with costly rent, unpredictable income, and a small amount of real estate, maybe this is why they’ve made — and are keeping — their prices so high.

But how long is this sustainable for, in a city that is relentless in pricing young people out? Will we ever see boutique rates start to decline? “Trends come and go,” says Longwell, “but the bottom line is getting results. As long as these programs can continue to deliver the results that people want, you’re going to see people continuing to spend money on these types of studios.” Not only that, but fitness is becoming a part of people’s identities. “Younger generations are so much more aware of healthy living and nutrition,” says Longwell. “They’re not buying stuff; they’re buying experiences.”

Every so often, I receive an email from Modo Yoga. “Where have you been?” the subject line reads. “We haven’t seen you in 60 days and we miss you! As an exclusive offer, get 10 classes for only $128 (usually $160).” Personal touch? Check. Making me feel like I’m part of a club? Check.

I took Modo’s offer once before. I may even do so again one day. For a few weeks, I’ll feel like a super fit pilates princess. But when class number 10 comes to an end, so, too, will my boutique fitness fantasy. They might get me back, but it won’t be for long. My wallet can only take so much.